Encyclopedic museums like the Minneapolis Institute of Art are massive, slow-moving beasts created and shaped by the wealthy elite. But that is slowly changing, thanks to a homegrown Mia project that’s become a national movement.
MASS Action, which stands for Museum as Site for Social Action, seeks to empower museum professionals through deeper conversations about equity and inclusion and ultimately a shift in the institutional structure itself.
“I think of the museum as a giant ship that takes so long to turn, but they are steered — they are made up of humans,” said Elisabeth Callihan, Mia’s head of multigenerational learning. “So MASS Action is thinking about how we can turn that inward.”
Callihan realized the potential for this networking approach to change in 2015 at the Annual Alliance of Museums Conference, which coincided with protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who suffered a fatal injury in police custody.
While business as usual continued at the conference, “One camp was like: ‘How are we as cultural and historical institutions not addressing history?’ ” Callihan said. “It was at that moment that I realized we are not the only ones struggling with this topic.”
She raised the issue with Karleen Gardner, Mia’s director of learning innovation, and they took the idea to then-director Kaywin Feldman. She greenlit MASS Action and helped secure $180,000 of funding from Nancy Engh and the Gale Family Foundation for three years’ worth of conferences that Mia hosted.
“The team at Mia always has an eye on consumer trends and changing demographics,” said Feldman, who is now director of the National Gallery of Art. “We all felt a real urgency to attract and embrace the broadest section of Minnesotans.”
By 2018, 61 museums in the United States, England and Canada joined the mix. This year, the organization is moving to a regional model, hosting four or five convenings across the country with an estimated 500 participants — twice as many as last year.
MASS Action is spreading in a networked way, much like the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement on Twitter, which argues that museums are inherently slanted toward able-bodied people and European culture.
Its impact is most visible in exhibition programming. Under the old museum paradigm, Egyptian civilization was portrayed as “special” while the rest of Africa was uncivilized. So when Mia staged the massive exhibition “Egypt’s Sunken Cities” last fall, it partnered with the Cultural Wellness Center, a Minneapolis nonprofit, to help present the show from an African-centered viewpoint.
Similarly, for the 2018 exhibition “Art and Healing: In the Moment,” which centered on the community response to the fatal police shooting of Philando Castile, curator Nicole Soukup worked with his mom, Valerie Castile, and community members directly affected by the tragedy.
This type of empathetic engagement is aimed at changing the way Mia is perceived — as a community-builder, not just a gatekeeper. “Some of the things we think about as radical new practices in the museum, you’d be like: ‘Oh, this is basic,’ ” said Callihan. “But this is a huge shift.”
After gathering input from all its employees, Mia established a Curatorial Advisory Committee that embraced every department. One result was last winter’s show “Mapping Black Identities,” which pushed back on the historically flat depictions of blackness often found at encyclopedic museums.
Mia staffer Anniessa Antar says many of her friends don’t even want to go to a museum, because they don’t see themselves in the exhibits, or they feel their identities are tokenized.
“Museums are generators of discourse and conversations that can uphold, or disrupt, dominant social narratives,” said Antar, who joined MASS Action at the beginning and now works in Mia’s Audience Engagement Department. “With MASS Action, we can start to work toward undoing legacies of oppression, not only with our collections but also in thinking about the labor of museum workers.”
MASS Action is one response to the hot-button debate about “decolonizing” museums. For indigenous people and communities of color, museums can be painful sites tied to the colonial era, as Walker Art Center discovered during protests over its “Scaffold” sculpture. Museums can stop seeing activists as adversaries, and instead listen to concerns — and learn. Part of the process is re-prioritizing collections to make them more equitable, while accepting that museums do not own the collections, but rather are stewards of them.
Gardner believes there are not only ethical and moral arguments for trying to engage all the various communities that make up Minnesota, but a business case, as well.
“If you look at the shifting demographics of our country, we are not going to exist if we aren’t thinking about new audiences,” she said. “Diversity fuels creativity and innovation, and bringing in creativity and diverse experiences is going to make us a richer institution.”